The one part of grad applications that should be at the top of your to-do list is asking for letters of recommendation. Finding the faculty who will write letters for you is stressful (after all, how best to you approach someone to sing your praises?), but it needs to be a priority. You should start thinking about who you want in August or September and get the process rolling as soon as possible – especially if you don’t know the faculty member particularly well and need time to cultivate the relationship further.
Normally, asking for letters of rec should be an in-person task, but since that isn’t possible with the current circumstances, email will have to suffice as the first step. Send an email to the faculty member and ask them for a Zoom/Skype meeting to discuss your future plans. By simply stating that you want to talk about your next steps, they will get the hint that you’re going to ask for a letter of rec. Once you have your virtual meeting set up, get a few items in place so that you’re ready for the meeting. Have these PDFs on hand: (1) CV, (2) writing sample, (3) statement of purpose or personal statement, (4) list of potential programs and their submission deadlines. And no, these documents don’t have to be the final version that you will submit for your app. You just need to have some documents ready to show that you’re serious about the application process, and that you’re ready to work with them so they can produce a stellar letter for you. If they agree to write a letter for you, you can email them your portfolio of docs on the spot.
I can already hear you! “What if I don’t have a writing sample or a personal statement?!” Well, get as many of the documents ready as you can before you speak to them. Again, your applications won’t be due until November or December, so you’ll have time to perfect them. BUT you can’t wait that long to ask for letters, so have a simple draft ready in September.
“But why so early? Can’t I just ask my recommenders in November?” Sure, but don’t expect a glowing recommendation from them. Here’s the scoop (and I write this as an instructor who has produced dozens of recs): when students ask me for a letter the week before a deadline, I agree and write a two or three-paragraph letter speaking to how long I’ve known them and whether they were competent in my courses. When asked about a month or so before deadlines, I include info on what the student has achieved in my courses and what I know about their personal activities. And students who ask me, say in August or September (about 2 months before deadlines), I write letters that include info about their successes in school, where they are going in life, how the program to which they are applying is a good fit, and why I think this particular student would be a great addition to whichever program they are applying. The brevity of letters so close to a submission deadline are not retributory; it’s simply that when asked late in the process, I don’t have time to produce a good letter. When asked early in the process, I can meet with the student and ask them (1) why they’re applying, (2) what they want to do in the future, (3) where they see themselves in the future. These questions are important from my standpoint so I can produce well-rounded letters that speak to your past and your future.
So who should you ask for a letter? Most programs will need 3 or 4 letters. If you’re applying to an academic program in Anthropology, you might find letters from fellow anthropologists will carry more weight than a letter from a faculty member in Mathematics. That’s not to say the admissions committee would disregard a letter from faculty outside of their field, but keep in mind that part of the letter will speak to your ability to conduct research in your chosen field. Your letters will speak to your intellectual drive and facility to actually do the work required in your chosen department.
You can be strategic about whom you approach to be your recommenders. For example, if you’re applying to a PhD program in South Asian Languages and Literatures, you might consider asking two faculty members who experienced firsthand your ability at critical analysis and research (in whichever course you took with them) and one language faculty member who can speak to your language abilities. Or if you’re applying to a department in the Biological Sciences, you might have two faculty members who can speak to your academic/intellectual prowess and one faculty member who oversaw your lab work and research. The point is, you want to have the most rounded image of who you are as a person. These three recommenders will each give information that is unique from the context from which they know you.
Once you’ve secured your 3 or 4 recommenders, open the damn application! Go to the university webpage and click “Apply.” Don’t wait until the week your app is due before starting it. Every institution will have an online application form and included in that application form is a section called “Recommenders.” You will input your recommenders’ information and a link will be sent to them. Your recommender will then upload the letter. BUT starting your application early and inputting their information will allow you to send them reminders every few weeks (with the link!). Keep on them. Send a reminder every 2 or 3 weeks, and keep them updated on your progress. You’ll be surprised; some of them will actually want to help you succeed. They will ask for updated drafts of your personal statement, CV, and writing sample.
And lastly, if a professor says “no,” don’t freak out. Faculty will often say no for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with you. They may even say that they like you and think you’ll be successful, and they still won’t write you a letter. It really isn’t about you. It could be as inane as a busy schedule or some arbitrary set of rules they have set for themselves (“I love this kid, but she got a B+ in my class. I only write letters for students who got A-s or above.”) If this faculty member was your last hope for a letter, just be up front with them and see if they have suggestions of where else to turn. You might have to resort to getting a letter from a boss or manager. There is always a way forward!